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United Methodist court opens door to petitions for special session on sexuality

Bishop Bruce R. Ough addresses the Judicial Council during an oral hearing on May 22, 2018, in Evanston, Ill. Photo by Kathleen Barry/UMNS

EVANSTON, Ill. (RNS) — A decision this week by the United Methodist Church’s top court hints at what the denomination’s planned special session on sexuality will look like.

And it has some worried that the special session of its General Conference, called for February 2019 in St. Louis to settle questions of ordination and marriage of LGBT members, could become mired in the same opposing petitions and points of order that led the 2016 conference to defer all discussion of sexuality to a commission.

One delegate proclaimed at the time, “I believe we are confusing God at this point.”

“That is certainly a major concern — that the body gets so bogged down with rules and procedure and questions and points of order that the body doesn’t make any kind of determination,” said Stephanie Henry, rules committee chair for Commission on General Conference.

The Judicial Council decided Friday (May 25) to allow any organization, clergy member or lay member of the United Methodist Church to submit petitions for consideration by delegates at the special session.

Those petitions must be “in harmony with the purpose” of the session, according to the decision.

That purpose  is “limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward,” according to the bishops’ call for a special session. That commission was created at the quadrennial gathering of the denomination’s lawmaking body in Portland in 2016, after the global church found itself increasingly divided over matters of sexuality.

At that conference, 56 distinct legislative petitions were submitted regarding sexuality, including the ordination of LGBT clergy and same-sex marriage.

The 2016 General Conference “knew what it was doing,” Bishop Bruce Ough said during the proceedings of the Judicial Council this week in Evanston, Ill. “It was stopping the endless quadrennial cycle of legislative battles over human sexuality.”

Ough was president of the Council of Bishops during the conference.

The Commission on a Way Forward recently finished its work, and the Council of Bishops, now headed by Bishop Ken Carter, announced its recommendation of the One Church Plan, one of three possible solutions recommended by the commission.

The One Church Plan would allow regional conferences and individual churches to make their own decisions regarding the inclusion of their LGBT members. That recommendation will be part of the bishops’ report to the special session, including a historical narrative that also will include the two other plans from the commission.

The bishops had asked the Judicial Council to rule, in their own special session, whether delegates at the special session of the General Conference would consider other petitions in addition to acting on their report. Their motivation, Carter said, was “the well-being of the General Conference.”

“It’s only three days, which is a very short time to do really historic work on the impasse in which the church finds itself,” he said.

John Lomperis, a General Conference delegate and United Methodist director for the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, who offered arguments at an oral hearing Tuesday (May 22), said he was “very happy” with the Judicial Council’s decision. He had feared a special session limited to the bishops’ report would allow a “liberal majority faction within the United Methodist bishops to dictate what sorts of thing we delegates could or could not decide in 2019.”

The Council of Bishops includes all bishops in the United Methodist Church worldwide, and its recommendation comes with the agreement of those bishops.

Henry, whose arguments at the hearing were on her own behalf and not on behalf of the committee, said she wasn’t surprised by the decision, but she was “a little disappointed that they didn’t provide more guidance” on what would be considered “in harmony” with the purpose of the session.

Deciding similar procedural matters took up the first three days of the 2016 General Conference, she remembered. She’s worried it could now take up a full day of the special session.

“The church has essentially hit the pause button until this 2019 general conference,” Henry said, “so if nothing comes out of it, then we’re back to 2016, and all this time and money — I hate to say it’s a waste because certainly things are happening, but it’s not the purpose. It’s not why we were called to be here.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

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